You know, I have always been an avid listener of music (read: someone who uses music as a coping mechanism), but only now have I decided to do what absolutely no one asked for. Here are write-ups of ONE song on each of the EIGHT albums I loved most this year. I was going to do a top ten albums thing, but honestly, I usually find those excruciatingly boring to read. And so, I choose eight to be my arbitrary number, and I’m focusing on single tracks instead of albums. It might still suck to read (I don’t know you) but think of this as a little sample tray. If you like one of the write-ups, listen to the song, and if you like the song, maybe check out the album. Or not. It’s your life.
The 8 Objectively Best Songs of 2019 (Plus some extras), a playlist by Steven Duong on Spotify
Some things you should remember before I get into it. 1.) these are in no particular order. 2.) all music criticism is purely objective. 3.) there can only ever be one correct opinion about a piece of art. And 4.) my taste is impeccable. Here we go!
- ) 800db cloud — 100 gecs, 1000 gecs
100 Gecs is some of the most American music I’ve ever heard. These songs are hybrids, as in, they’re mutts, meticulously arranged musical collages assembled out of scraps from the online sonic garbage bin of the 2000’s, a few solid shitposts, and a real animal heart pumping beneath it all. Laura Les and Dylan Brady really know how to cut it up. “800db cloud” features these twinkly guitars in the beginning, but when the beat drops, distorted guitars right out of a hardcore record wail out between brostep drums and strange electronic hiccups. On top of that, the two singers drop these autotuned, pitched-up chipmunk vocals, riding Migos triplet flows and popstar hooks. This song, melted down, is the lifeblood flowing through the veins of Al Gore’s internet in 2019. Maybe that’s why 1000 Gecs feels so American to me.
The lyrical content is just as erratic as the sounds, moving from Les’s raw emotional honesty (“He said I love you on the plane, I said I love you too”) to Brady’s run-of-the-mill flex (“I got a bag on the way / smoking a zip in a day”) to Les’s really weird flex(“I’m addicted to Monster, money and weed, yeah!”). The song ends with these freaky crunched guitars and an ear-grating screamo session, as if the body of the song wasn’t enough of an emotional release. Anyway, this thing is irreverent and inventive in strangely satisfying ways, while still delivering these earnest emotions at the end of the day.
1000 Gecs is one of my favorite records of the year, and if you like “800db cloud,” listen to the rest of the album (the songs are all very different from each other, but spoiler alert, there’s some ska).
2.) hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have — but I have it — Lana Del Rey, Norman Fucking Rockwell!
If there’s anything that defines Lana, it’s how committed she is to the bit. We can argue all day about authenticity and appropriation when it comes to Ms. Lana Del Rey (born Elizabeth Wooldridge Grant) and we can argue about the nature of performance too, but all I know is she would rather die than drop the act. This song here does something powerful that very few songs are able to do. Lana somehow maintains this airtight and impossibly alluring persona as the Americana-obsessed-witch-slash-tortured-artist, while retaining this truly authentic and affective emotional core. She can deploy the melodrama of the Sylvia Plath namedrop and the whole writing-on-the-walls-in-blood thing in the very same song she talks about wanting to speak with her dead father on FaceTime, only to say hello to him. The lyrics and delivery and emotion mesh so neatly here, especially backed by that spare piano.
That titular line: “hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have,” sung mantra-like throughout the track, only to end with a variation that changes everything: “but I have it.” What a killer move. She whisper-sings it over and over. but I have it but I have it but I have it. It’s such a tiny shred of hope, but it’s bursting with triumph, that last line. She brings it home. Anyway, there’s a lot of rightful criticism of Lana Del Rey (ie: she’s a fake Latina and her bf is a cop), but there’s also so much criticism rooted in misogyny. This song, which closes a terrific, artist-defining album, pushes Lana’s name into the same trophy cabinet as those great (and flawed) American songwriters she idolizes so much.
If you like this song, try the intro track and “Venice Bitch,” but honestly, just do yourself a favor and listen to the whole album.
3.) Surf (feat. Gunna) — Young Thug, So Much Fun
If I was ranking the songs on this list, this song would be above number one. It would be number zero. This song is the Mona Lisa of songs. The Eiffel Tower of music. First of all, Pierre Bourne is a genius producer, and this beat of his is a whimsical, bubbly, beachy little thing, the perfect playground for Thug to hop around in. Where do I even start with Thug? His hook is just the word “surf” repeated as goofily as possible, with some assorted adlibs (ie: “woah!” and “wavy!”), including one of the best adlibs of all time, “hey totally, dude!”, which, in his voice, sounds more like, *+~aYe tOtAlLy dUdE **! Young Thug reaches peak levels of kawaii here. He sounds so cute. He’s having fun, bouncing all over the place, stretching his voice from Kermit-croaks to motorcycle squeals: “I’m wavy goddamn / n*ggas want smoke with the slatt, we can meet in the kitchen / I’m burnin the ham.” He also manages to rap about castrating his enemies??? I’ll say it: this is the best song about surfing ever made. Suck it, Brian Wilson. Sorry, Beyoncé.
This record, which was Thug’s first number one with 120,000+ copies sold first-week, shows him living up to the promise he’s made his whole career. Thug will never compromise his sound. “Surf” and some of the other songs here dive into poppier territory, taking the eccentricities and weirdness I’ve always loved about him and channeling them into something dancey and fun. And yet, it’s so authentically him. It’s still Jeffery with the blonde dreads, the yelps and drugs and designer dresses. He’s always had great pop instincts (that “Havana” verse, “Pick up the Phone,” “There’s Gonna be Good Times”), only now, it’s paid off. On this record, it looks and sounds like he’s having the time of his life. Young Thug is a bad bitch and I am so happy for him.
If you like “Surf,” try “What’s the Move (feat. Lil Uzi Vert)” or “Light it Up.”
4.) Black Coffee — Mal Blum, Pity Boy
I’ve been a Mal Blum fan for so damn long. This record is an absolute winner. Their first album, released back in 2010, consists of these low-key, folk-punk-adjacent tunes (epitomized by the classic “New Year’s Eve”) with a lot of emotional kick to them, backed by simple instrumentals. They inspired a whole sad-guitar-boy phase in me that I’m not sure I’ll fully outgrow. Then, with 2015’s You Look a Lot Like Me, Blum began using a full band and pushing into indie rock/punk musical territory while holding tight onto those heart-wrenching, wry lyrics. This is the sound they sharpen in Pity Boy. It’s a drum-heavy, in-your-face, punk album centering Blum’s tender writing.
“Black Coffee” is a standout because it’s more stripped down then the loud pop-punk songs on the rest of the record. It hearkens back to Blum’s folksy stuff, but here, they throw that fingerpicking on a crackly electric guitar with some feedback, bridging the distance between the old and the new. For a song (and a record) that deals in themes of transition and trans identity, as well as visibility, authenticity, and mental illness, this is a fitting musical choice. The guitar echoes the brashness of the rest of the record while remaining raw and pared down, letting the lyrics and vocal melody shine: “Double my meds and stay in bed / I can’t feel anything again / my face, my arms, my common sense,” which gets echoed later on in the song, “Salt Flats” with “21 is 11, just on different meds.” Mal Blum’s writing really held me down this year.
If you like the low-key, spare sound of “Black Coffee,” try “Salt Flats” or anything off their old records. If you like the energy of that guitar bristling behind the vocals, try “Not my Job” or “I Don’t Want To.”
5.) cellophane — FKA Twigs, MAGDALENE
It would be fair to say this album fucked me up. “cellophane” is the first single Twigs has dropped in three years, and it’s also the album’s closer. Over a soft piano and this weird and immaculately produced swell of sound looming behind it, Twigs sings about a love that was always under intense scrutiny, most likely referring to her relationship with Robert Pattinson and how the invasive and oftentimes cruel/racist tabloid media and its followers sought to tear them apart. From the very beginning (“didn’t I do it for you?”), her voice is just dripping with hopelessness, the despair of someone looking back at a world they’ll never occupy again.
When she first whispers, “wrapped in cellophane,” listen to that sweep of strings and that metallic shimmer, followed by a strained reprise of the chorus, this time backed by soft percussion — this song dips in and out of its sonic tapestry in such a memorable way. The music has this claustrophobic push and pull, echoing the deep outside pressure Twigs felt in the love affair she memorializes here. Coupled with those heartbreaking lyrics and Twigs’s emotionally devastating delivery, “cellophane” is just magic. Definitely watch the music video too. I don’t want to give everything away, but it’s ornate and gorgeous and features pole-dancing. Grammy-nominated to boot.
If you like this track, check out “sad day” and “mirrored heart.”
6.) Doorman (feat. Mura Masa) — slowthai, Nothing Great About Britain
slowthai is doing something right. He dropped one of the best albums of the year. He went on a national tour, aptly titled the “Bet Ya a £5er Tour” because all the tickets sold for exactly five pounds. He showed up to the Mercury Awards performance in September holding a life-like severed Boris Johnson head. And of course, he made this grimy ass song with electronic music producer Mura Masa.
With its pumping kick drums, its steady, drive-heavy guitars and its raw vocals, “Doorman” is an outlier on the album, which features mostly British hip hop and grime-influenced production. It’s also a departure for Mura Masa, who usually plays with more shiny pop sounds, à la “Lovesick.” And yet, against all odds, the song works. It’s this thrashy electro-punk slapper, carried by slowthai’s in-your-face vocals, his big moshpit energy, and his class-war rants. Even with such a wild and untraditional beat, the rapper is able to highlight himself in all his scrappy oddness. And with how spare the verses are, he truly makes every word count: “I pour my heart out / she laps up my blood / blue lights, double vision / heart races like supercars.” There’s poetry here: a bit of the Beats, a bit of The Clash, a bit of Dizzee Rascal. This is the kind of energy, genre-bending and class-consciousness that UK rap needs.
If you like “Doorman,” the rest of the album doesn’t really sound like it, but try “Crack” and “Inglorious (feat. Skepta),” which are fire.
7.) Snake — Lil Keed, Long Live Mexico
Listen, “Snake” is so good to me. TO ME. In the past, Lil Keed has been the Walmart version of Thug, always passably copying his mentor’s flows and deliveries on most of his songs and only shining every once in a while, but this time, he really does come into his own. Young Thug’s legacy is the blueprint, but Keed adds his own flourishes. He pushes the high-pitched, slurring vocals to an extreme on the verses here. He wails. He hisses. And on the hook, when you expect him to push it even higher, he slows down and strips the Thug formula down to its bones. Literally, it’s just him saying “snake” over and over and over in this quiet sort of snarl, the word barely escaping his teeth, to the point where it sounds like the musical equivalent of someone just typing the snake emoji over and over. That’s the thing with Keed.
I was recently speaking to this white guy who was very much in the “mumble rap…more like mumble CRAP” camp, and it made me think of why I like rappers like Keed and Playboi Carti and Thug so much. When it comes down to it, these artists shine a light on how crucial production, delivery, vocals and energy are when it comes to rap, sometimes even more than lyrics. Rap began as party music, music that carried a feeling of youth and movement and exuberance. And yes, Keed does have some snappy lines on the album (“Fuck forensics, if we shoot it up, they know we did it”), but also, when he slurs and squeals until the words are unintelligible, he’s so in tune with the instrumental that his voice becomes as much a part of it as the wild-western guitar sample, the thudding 808s. There’s funk to this. I think that might be what it is. There’s something alive and dynamic and improvisational about this song, and that’s why I love it so much.
If you want to give Keed a listen, try “Real Hood Baby” or “Pass it Out” on the same album, or “Nameless” of an older tape.
8.) Dylan Thomas — Phoebe Bridgers & Conor Oberst, Better Oblivion Community Center
Really hard to pick a standout from this album, but “Dylan Thomas” is definitely the banger of the pack. Maybe an inappropriate label for a song featuring the ever-melancholy Conor Oberst and Phoebe Bridgers, but this record has crashing drums, a roaring guitar solo, and a super catchy melody literally invented so I could scream it at a concert. I absolutely love that it’s not two artists trading verses, but both of them singing the exact same melody and the exact same words at the exact same time. It’s hard to tell where Phoebe ends and Conor starts. They just unite into this crazy two-headed indie rock superstar and allow their voices and words to knock the listener out. And so, after the solo, when it’s just Bridgers’s lone voice sailing out of the blue over a stripped-down instrumental, it hits like a sack of bricks, or if that’s too blunt a description for Phoebe Bridgers’s voice, maybe a crossbow bolt or something. Sharp and bright and perfectly aerodynamic.
I don’t know, but: “I’m strapped into a corset / climbed into your corvette / thirsty for another drink” is a bar. And so is, “they say you gotta fake it / at least until you make it / that ghost is just a kid in a sheet.” Love that little Stranger in the Alps nod. Bridgers represents a new generation of phenomenal indie songwriters, Oberst is an old hand, and when they come together to write a record this loud, this folk-rocky, with this much of a crescendo, it’s going to rock. It just might make you weep too.
If you like this track for its energy and how synchronized the duo are, try “Sleepwalkin’.” If you like the introspective lyrics, try “Service Road,” or the whole record, or if you got a lot (lot lot lot) of time, all their solo stuff too (plus Boygenius and some Bright Eyes).
That’s all, folks. Those were the eight objectively best songs of the year. No disagreements or rebuttals allowed. Honorable mentions go to Megan Thee Stallion (“Cash Shit feat. Dababy”) and Doja Cat (“Bottom Bitch”). Amazing songs, I just didn’t like the albums as much. Good luck and good night.